Schrödinger Quantum Percolator Makes Half Decent Coffee

I couldn’t decide between normal and decaffeinated coffee. So to eliminate delays in my morning routine, and decision fatigue,  I’ve designed the Schrödinger Quantum Percolator — making the state of my coffee formally undecidable until I drink it.

At its core, the Quantum Percolator contains a novel quantum event detector that uses electron tunneling to determine whether to use caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee. The mechanical components are enclosed in an opaque box, so I can’t tell which type of coffee is being used.

The result is coffee that simultaneously contains and does not contain caffeine – at least until you collapse the caffeination probability waveform by drinking it. As the expression goes, you can’t have your quantum superposition of states and drink it too!

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This Vintage Op-Amp Opens A Fascinating Window Into Semiconductor History

We have covered enough of the work of [Ken Shirriff] on these pages to know that when he publishes something, it will be a fascinating read and work of the highest quality. And so it is with his latest, a very unusual op-amp on which he performs his usual reverse engineering. Not only does it lead us directly to some of the seminal figures in the early years of the semiconductor industry, it turns out to have been a component manufactured to a NASA specification and of which there is an example on the Moon.

The metal can revealed a hybrid circuit when the lid was removed, one in which individual transistors were wired together with a single block containing a group of thin-film resistors. At the start of the 1960s the height of consumer electronics would have been your domestic TV which would have been an all-tube affair, so while it sounds archaic this would truly have been a space-age piece of technology. The designer is revealed as the legendary [Bob Pease], and the transistors take us back to the semiconductor physicist [Jean Hoerni], inventor of the planar transistor and one of the famous eight defectors from Shockley Semiconductor in the 1950s who kick-started the semiconductor boom.

The op-amp itself is a relatively simple design without the compensation capacitor you might expect in a modern device, but what makes it unusual for its time is the use of [Hoerni]’s planar JFETs at its input. [Ken]’s analysis is as usual extremely thorough, and the bit of Silicon Valley history it gives us is the icing on the cake.

If you have a thirst for ancient op-amps, you might like our look at the first commercially available fully-integrated design, the Fairchild μA702.

Radiation Detector Eschews Tubes, Uses Photodiode

When the topic is radiation detection, thoughts turn naturally to the venerable Geiger-Müller tube. It’s been around for ages, Russian surplus tubes are available for next to nothing, and it’s easy to use. But as a vacuum tube it can be somewhat delicate, and the high voltages needed to run it can be a little on the risky side.

Luckily, there are other ways to see what’s going on in the radioactive world, like this semiconductor radiation detector. [Robert Gawron] built it as a proof-of-concept after having built a few G-M tube detectors before. His solid-state design relies on a reverse-biased photodiode conducting when ionizing radiation hits the P-N junction. The tiny signal is amplified by a pair of low-noise op-amps and output to a BNC connector. The sensor’s analog output is sent to an oscilloscope whose trigger out is connected to a Nucleo board for data acquisition. The Nucleo is in turn connected to a Raspberry Pi for totalizing and logging. It’s a complicated chain, but the sensor appears to work, even detecting alpha emissions from thoriated TIG electrodes, a feat we haven’t been able to replicate with our G-M tube counter.

[Robert]’s solid-state detector might not be optimal, but it has promise. And we have seen PIN diodes used as radiation detectors before, too.

[via Dangerous Prototypes]

A Drum Set In Your Pocket

Cargo pants can fit drumsticks in the pockets if you don’t mind them sticking out. They can also hold this drum set and still have enough room for a pair of headphones, some pens, and a small notebook. At least, guy’s cargo pants can fit all that. Now your pocket is decked out with enough music gear to compose and drum few drum loops and even scribble some notes. We can’t speak for [Tomash Ghz] carrying a notebook, but he wanted a drum set in his pocket badly enough to make a custom circuit board to bring to the 2017 Fasma Festival in Athens. He wrote code for a Teensy 3.2 which fits on the back of his PCB next to a 9V battery. Don’t be afraid, the smallest components are 0805 so even clumsy fingers will be able to build their own. The Gerber files and BOM are all available, so nothing is stopping you.

On the board, we find an array of op-amps to support headphone and line-level outputs, four big ole’ buttons to activate each type of drum: kick, tom, snare, and hat. Then we have four potentiometers to change the sound of each like pitch, decay/length, modulation, and distortion. Once the perfect pattern is recorded, it can be saved in non-volatile memory in case you run out of juice although it can run up to seven-and-a-half hours on one battery. If you find yourself invested in the hardware, there is also a video walk-through about using the drum machine so grab your notebook and beat it.

We have seen simpler drums in simpler chips, and even drums on an entirely different type of chip.

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What’s the Difference? Ask an Op Amp

If you’ve ever wondered why an op amp has the little plus and minus symbols on it, its because at the heart of it, the device is a differential amplifier. The problem is that — ideally, at least — it has infinite gain so it works like a comparator and that’s not what you usually want. So we put resistors around the thing to constrain it and get useful amplification out of it. [Stephen Mendes] does the analysis for you about how the standard configuration for a differential amplifier works. He assumes you know the stock formulae for the inverting and non-inverting amplifier configurations and uses superposition.

[Stephen] mentions that’s the easiest way to do it and then goes on to do it sort of how we would do it as a check. We think that’s the easier method, but maybe its a matter of preference. Either way, you get the right answer.

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Op Amps Before Transistors: A 600V Vacuum Tube Monster

Op amps. Often the first thing that many learn about when beginning the journey into analog electronics, they’re used in countless ways in an overwhelmingly large array of circuits. When we think about op amps, images of DIPs and SOICs spring to mind, with an incredibly tiny price tag to boot. We take their abundance and convenience for granted nowadays, but they weren’t always so easy to come by.

[Mr Carlson] serves up another vintage offering, this time in the form of a tube op amp. The K2-W model he acquired enjoyed popularity when it was released as one of the first modular general purpose amplifiers, due to its ‘compact form’ and ‘low price’. It also came with large application manuals which helped it to gain users.

In order to power up the op amp and check its functionality, +300V and -300V supplies are needed. [Mr Carlson] is able to cobble something together, since it’s very apparent that he has an enviable stash of gear lying around. A 600V rail to rail supply is not something to be taken lightly, though it does give this particular model the ability to output 100V pk-pk without any distortion.

The op amp is set up as an inverting amplifier, and once powered on proves to work flawlessly. As always, the video is an entertaining watch, stuffed full of retro electronics trivia. We’re big fans of [Mr Carlson]’s work, and have previously written about his adventures with a colossal walk-in AM radio transmitter, as well as his restoration of a 1930s oscilloscope and subsequent transformer de-potting.

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The Hot and Cold of Balanced Audio

A few summers of my misspent youth found me working at an outdoor concert venue on the local crew. The local crew helps the show’s technicians — don’t call them roadies; they hate that — put up the show. You unpack the trucks, put up the lights, fly the sound system, help run the show, and put it all back in the trucks at the end. It was grueling work, but a lot of fun, and I got to meet people with names like “Mister Dog Vomit.”

One of the things I most remember about the load-in process was running the snakes. The snakes are fat bundles of cables, one for audio and one for lighting, that run from the stage to the consoles out in the house. The bigger the snakes, the bigger the show. It always impressed me that the audio snake, something like 50 yards long, was able to carry all those low-level signals without picking up interference from the AC thrumming through the lighting snake running right alongside it, while my stereo at home would pick up hum from the three-foot long RCA cable between the turntable and the preamp.

I asked one of the audio techs about that during one show, and he held up the end of the snake where all the cables break out into separate connectors. The chunky silver plugs clinked together as he gave his two-word answer before going back to patching in the console: “Balanced audio.”

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